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Halfway Home

Well, to be technical about it, the halfway mark of the season will be reached after tonight's game, the eighty-first, but since the game is in fact tonight, this afternoon seems like a good time to run down, as I did a year ago in this space, the season to date, what's gone wrong and right, and what we can look forward to.

The Cubs are 45-35, ten games over .500, three games better than they were a year ago after eighty games. Of course, the expectations are much higher than they were then, but let's look at all the things that have gone wrong so far in 2004:

* The two aces of the pitching staff, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, have started a total of thirteen (Wood, 7, Prior, 6) of the first eighty games, less than half of what they should have. One of the replacement starters started nine times and had a 6.51 ERA.

* The closer, Joe Borowski, lost 3-4 MPH off his fastball, blew several saves, had an 8.02 ERA and then had to go on the DL.

* No fewer than half the starting eight (Sammy Sosa, Mark Grudzielanek, Alex Gonzalez, and now possibly Aramis Ramirez) have missed significant playing time due to injury.

* Corey Patterson came back from injury but started very slowly and at one point was being booed every time he came up to bat.

* The Cubs signed a backup shortstop who, even after having three extra-base hits in one week, is hitting .143.

* The Cubs' presumed main rival in the division, the Houston Astros, traded for a player said by some to be the best player in baseball.

Well. A team like this ought to be in last place, right? Ten games under .500?

Of course, the Cubs have not only hung in there, but in the last week appear finally to be clicking on all cylinders, and presuming Ramirez is only out the three or four games that is expected as of now, by the time the All-Star break is over, Wood and Gonzalez may return and finally, the team that we expected to see out of spring training will be together for the first time, nearly 90 games into the season.

Some things that went right, or that we expected to happen and did:

* LaTroy Hawkins has pitched as advertised, throwing well in the setup role and then moving seamlessly in as closer. Yes, he's blown a couple of saves, but other than Eric Gagne, what closer doesn't? I particularly like the fact that he has walked only six batters in 45 innings.

* A pitcher released at the end of spring training by the Rangers, Glendon Rusch, has stepped in and started admirably in place of Kerry Wood, and will be an integral part of the bullpen once Wood returns.

* The Todds, Hollandsworth and Walker, both inexpensive acquisitions to upgrade the bench, have performed as advertised, and both stepped in and did excellent work when asked to play every day to replace injured regulars (yes, I know it's true that Hollandsworth's average was .245 when replacing Sammy Sosa. However, that's still way better than Troy O'Leary did when Sosa was out last year).

* Michael Barrett appears to finally have beaten his injuries of past seasons and reached the offensive potential he showed flashes of with the Expos. While he's not nearly the defensive catcher that Damian Miller was, I have seen improvement, notably the terrific unassisted caught-stealing he pulled off the other day against Houston.

* No-names like Jon Leicester and Jose Macias, while not great players, have both contributed to victories this year.

* Derrek Lee, with his traditional slow start, had his traditional hot June (he hit .385 and may wind up as NL Player of the Month) and has been just as advertised, particularly defensively, where I don't think he gets nearly enough credit for his good hands and range.

* The Astros have nearly collapsed under their own weight and age, and even though they did acquire the terrific Carlos Beltran, if they fall farther out of the race (six games out as of now), Beltran could wind up on yet another contender before the month is out.

Though I think we all respected the Cardinals, particularly their offensive prowess, I don't think any of us figured that in another week, the Central could turn into a two-team race, with the second-place finisher most likely being the wild card. With the East and West divisions both looking fairly mediocre this year, that could be the difference between the one-seed and home field in both rounds of NL playoffs, and the four-seed and having to win two series without the home advantage. What worries me most about the Cardinals is the fact that I think they know that their pitching may not hold up over the full season, and that they might go out and pluck, say, a Russ Ortiz from the Braves, if the Braves think they are out of it (which, despite being below .500, they are certainly not right now, only 3 1/2 games out of first place).

This is going to be one heck of a second half, I think, and one thing that seems imperative is that by July 20, when the Cubs and Cardinals play their final game of the season (how stupid is that?), that the Cubs need to close the 3-game gap. This is eminently do-able.

Finally, you're going to get awfully sick of seeing the Brewers. Starting tomorrow, Milwaukee will be the opponent in 19 of the ensuing 39 games.

Let's go get 'em.